Mass hysteria is terrorism’s second-best weapon

By Simon Jenkins  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Sat, Apr 20, 2013 - Page 9

I know who the real terrorists are. Several of them set off a bomb during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 176. Such things happen regularly round the world. For those in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is a personal catastrophe.

Such deeds are senseless murders, but they are not terrorism as such. What makes them terrorist is the outside world rushing to hand their perpetrators a megaphone. Murder is magnified a thousandfold, replayed over and again, described and analyzed, sent into every home. A blast becomes a mass psychosis, impelling a terror of repetition and demands for drastic countermeasures. An act of violence that deserves no meaning is given it.

On Wednesday in London, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s memorial service was being “reviewed in the light of the intelligence and security environment,” as if Boston had suddenly rendered London insecure.

Tomorrow’s London Marathon was likewise “under discussion,” as officials had to deny that it might be canceled. British Prime Minister David Cameron had to speak. London Mayor Boris Johnson had to speak. Could the Boston bomber have been awarded any greater accolade?

I heard a radio reporter intone that it was “incredibly difficult to make sporting events safe and security.”

It is not incredibly difficult, it is impossible. However, who dares say so, when the great god terror stalks the land, hand-in-hand with the BBC’s World at One?

Author Joseph Conrad’s secret agent declared that the bomber’s aim was not to kill, but to create fear of killing. That is why the terrorist and the policeman “both come from the same basket.”

The terrorist’s achievement would be to generate such fear that the police would be reduced to “shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public.”

Half his battle would be won “with the disintegration of the old morality” — by which Conrad meant liberal tolerance.

At present terrorism draws strength from the West’s adoption of extra-legal violence as a countermeasure. A democracy acting in what it regards as self-defense may differ from the mindless rage of the jihadist.

However, the US is now taking the “war on terror” away from any specific theater into a realm of “out of area” assassination, rendition and drone killing. As such it is easily seen as giving itself a license for random violence.

To Waziri or Yemeni villagers obliterated by a drone, the fact that they were not the “intended” victims is immaterial.

They are as dead as the Boston victims. Such cruel, arm’s-length “crime prevention” is precisely what Conrad’s special agent sought to provoke. If the US claims legitimacy in sowing terror from the air, Islamists claim likewise on the ground.

This heightened sensitivity to terror is ubiquitous. In Britain there is not 10 minutes’ peace on a Virgin train without a voice intoning that we should “look out for any suspicious objects or persons and report to the police.”

This is pure Big Brother, the mutualization of suspicion. A quiet walk round Westminster or Kensington in London is jarred by wandering policemen toting machine guns. They may be just showing off, but showing off to what purpose? We have even come to regard it as normal.

Domestic security has become “national security” and left to account only to public fear. It employs millions of Americans, in a country under no existential threat. I asked a British civil servant if, at planning meetings, anyone ever suggested a particular counter-terror measure might be over the top, such as surface-to-air missiles at the Olympics.

The answer was no one would dare. British tycoon Richard Branson lacks the guts to stand down his scaremongerers. Scotland Yard’s Bernard Hogan-Howe lacks the guts to call off his Westminster Tonton Macoute.

Nothing will stop people setting off bombs. Anarchists, republicans, jihadists and fanatics have done so since the invention of dynamite. They are best countered by quiet espionage within dissident communities. Otherwise we must accept that living and moving in a free community involves risk, especially in nations such as Britain and the US, claiming the right to tell the world how it should be run.

The Chinese proverb bids us always to ask what the enemy most wants us to do. The terrorist craves us to give him publicity, reaction and retaliation. The media is his megaphone.

There is a world of difference between reporting a bombing and giving it blanket coverage. This week’s media has shown no inclination to deny terror the oxygen of publicity.

Asked what the significance of the Boston bomb was, the US terrorism expert Rick Nelson told the BBC: “The fact that here we are talking about it.”

The most sensible remark yesterday came from the White House, where US President Barack Obama refused even to use the word terrorism. Much good it did. The world cried Sept. 11, 2001, and that was that. After the bomb, mass hysteria is terrorism’s second-best weapon. It was loaded, cocked and fired. We now wait only for some deranged idiot to bless us with his message, which we will of course broadcast to the world.

On the day of Thatcher’s funeral, I recall the most courageous thing I ever saw a politician do.

Within hours of escaping an assassination attempt in 1984, and with friends dying round her, she refused to let security be her master. She changed her clothes, stalked into her conference hall and made a speech that barely mentioned what had happened. Terror was in its proper place. Thatcher set an example to the pusillanimous, cowering, overprotected, risk-averse politicians of today.